SXSW 2018: PROSPECT is an Impressively Crafted Piece of Frontier Sci-Fi

Expansive world-building combines with intimate storytelling

The 2018 edition of the SXSW Conference and Festivals is here, and the Cinapse team is on the ground, covering all things film.

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There’s always been an overlap between the science fiction and Western genres. Themes of exploration, of colonization, of danger on the frontier resonate whether you’re saddling up outside a saloon or docked at a space station in another galaxy. Star Trek was originally pitched as Wagon Train to the Stars, while Westworld, Back to the Future III, and perhaps most pertinently Firefly have seen these genres seep into each other. Prospect, as the title alludes, is an intimate look at the travails of those seeking an intergalactic gold rush. Folk eking out a living, pushing themselves into dangerous situations hoping for a big score, their lives as cobbled together as the equipment they often work with. As the film demonstrates, it’s certainly one of the richer veins to mine within the genre.

Expanded from a short that played at SXSW in 2014, co-writer-directors Zeek Earl and Christopher Caldwell return to expand on their tale of two intergalactic prospectors, Damon (Jay Duplass) and his daughter Cee (Sophie Thatcher), working from an outpost on the far reaches of mankind’s expansion into space. Below is an alien moon, a toxic environment that is also home to deposits of rare gems, valuable enough to finance their futures once they return to the core systems. With time running out before their expedition ends, Damon takes their pod down to the surface in the hope of one final score, but a malfunction on landing marks the beginning of their problems, which escalate when they cross paths with a rival pair of prospectors. The situation comes to a head, leaving Cee to form an uneasy alliance with the nefarious Ezra (Pedro Pascal) to not only survive, but to try and get off-world before they miss their window to return home.

Prospect is a film that holds your gaze. Sun streams through the branches of an alien forest, reflecting from grains of pollen and spores dotted in the air, adding to an incandescent haze. The sight of a vast moon often looming on the horizon. This otherworldly redressing of a Seattle forest is the backdrop to a futuristic tech that embraces a lo-fi analog era, with bulky equipment, manual cranks, and physical switches, along with a writing system that looks to be channeling Aubresh. It’s a look that hearkens back to classics such as Silent Running and Alien, while evoking recent fare like Annihilation too. It’s a well worn and jury-rigged aesthetic that looks interesting and makes you think about history; the different space suits worn by the various factions are perhaps the best example of this. Dialogue drips information about this future for our species; characters show disparate styles and channel their past culture in terms of adornment and musical choices. It conveys an idea that people are determined to hold on to their culture and history, even being light-years away from Earth. These interjections of obscure rock, Japanese hip hop, and Indian music combine with superb sound design and a score that thunders along to aid the realization of a remarkable level of atmosphere and texture.

Prospect does suffer somewhat in that is feels more invested in bringing this universe to life than the characters that inhabit it. Duplass has little to work with, a sacrificial lamb of sorts to get the story going, while the various characters encountered along the way have little of weight to deliver or differentiate from each other. Recurring inconveniences on the path to escape aren’t conveyed with the urgency needed. The initial lack of development in the father/daughter relationship threatens the film in the initial stages, but later developments go a long way to compensate, especially due to the work of Thatcher as Cee. There is an endearing vulnerability to her that is gradually replaced by an appreciation for her dogged determination. It’s layered work by Thatcher, who, often constrained by cumbersome attire, makes the film her own. Pedro Pascal, channeling Mal Reynolds (no complaints here about that), offers an accomplished roguish quality as well as intrigue. Their co-dependency and the chemistry of these two actors are crucial to Prospect’s success as well as its charm.

Prospect is one of those rare films that achieves that delicate balance of building something expansive, while keeping its focus on smaller stakes. A lean, evocative, and well crafted film, where you feel imagination is sparked by a limited budget, rather then being constrained by it, going beyond world building into Universe building. Combining with intimate storytelling makes for an impressively crafted piece of frontier sci-fi.

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